The Lady Eve (1941)

The lady eveIn his essay for Criterion collection, James Harvey writes following: “Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve is some kind of great movie. And yet, like most of the best Hollywood movies of its time, its emotional range is narrow, it makes almost no pretensions to observation of American life or to social satire, its characterization is almost nil and its conflicts a clash of stereotypes. It is, in short, “classic” Hollywood and so has none of the features by which we are accustomed to recognize serious art or dramaturgy.” Harvey continues this essay with a mystificatory voice, trying to find some redeeming quality that would stand up against “accusations” offered in these few lines. Whether he succeeds or not I’ll leave you to find out for yourself. As far as I’m concerned, we need not go any further. This is nothing but a personal choice. If anyone is prone to mystifications I am. I understand the need for that particular narrative strategy when faced with a challenge of defending a movie you like without any “rational” tools at your disposal. In this instance, though, ranting about ethereal qualities of Barbara Stanwyck doesn’t quite cut it for me. I was stuck on the sentiment described in aforementioned lines and however I tried I couldn’t remove myself from it. The Lady Eve was as escapist as they come. It isn’t surprising, or even unexpected (much of the films from Hollywood of the forties were just like that, being the war and all, though ’41 fares quite well – being the year of Citizen Kane and How green was my valley), neither is insulting for your average intelligence, but somehow I couldn’t make peace with any of it.

The Lady Eve.avi_002274024              On the other hand, I did admire dash of feminism in this movie. Role reversal as Harvey called it. Fall of men, symbolized (somewhat in-your-face-ish) by a snake and usual Biblical reference in the opening screens. Considering the setback for women just a decade later this almost read as avant-garde. This attempt at empowering women couldn’t do without resorting to caricature. Sometimes you just have to simplify narrative at all costs – at least that’s what Hollywood’s been telling itself for more than few decades (and Box Offices kept proving them right). Henry Fonda is as stupid as they come. Couldn’t but read a dash of revenge-fantasy there. If in some weird twist of fate this happens to be remade for modern audiences, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see someone else doing Fonda’s routine. As far as feminists tell us, women are still usually perceived as empty objects of desire, so evening the score a little couldn’t hurt. Fighting fire with fire always was a good strategy. It wasn’t unusual to see women (or anyone else who couldn’t be cast as a dominant white male) in roles like Fonda’s. It was unusual casting them as something other than eye-candy. The Lady Eve played with this quite a bit though it couldn’t do much. There was Hayes, and then there was genre. Between limitations of these two, things turned out as good as they could.

The Lady Eve.avi_004307349            This is just partly true because other movies of the period managed to be bit more creative within those boundaries. Whatever subversiveness it might have had at some point, The Lady Eve managed to fuck it up by sticking with a love story by the book. Even Stanwyckian adventuresses do have to fall madly in love. How else could they be conceived? As independent women perhaps? Not in the ’41. Mata Hari was both an object of desire and social taboo. Homebreaker if there ever was one. In that instance it is important to note that Henry Fonda does enter Barbara’s room at the end of the movie, not knowing that she’s the same person he married earlier. Whatever the facts, the sin has been intended. You could just hear a snake rattle in the darkness of that room. Apples and fictional orchards one can appoint to sexual allusions. This was an important victory against Hayes. Whatever else Sturges might have fucked up, this one instance of subversiveness towards Hollywoodian sanctity of marriage, however obscured it might have been, was a small victory in an ongoing battle for liberation of American filmmaking.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Preston Sturges
Produced by Paul Jones
Buddy G. DeSylva(uncredited)
Written by Preston Sturges
Based on “Two Bad Hats”
by Monckton Hoffe
Starring Barbara Stanwyck
Henry Fonda
Music by Phil Boutelje
Charles Bradshaw
Gil Grau
Sigmund Krumgold
John Leipold
Leo Shuken
(all uncredited)
Cinematography Victor Milner
Editing by Stuart Gilmore
Distributed by Paramount Pictures

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